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PAHO adviser calls for more wastewater research in C'bean

Published:Friday | November 29, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Petre Williams-Raynor, Contributing Editor


WITH BETWEEN 85 and 90 per cent of untreated wastewater reaching the Caribbean marine environment annually, there is need for research to investigate its public-health impacts.

To do otherwise would be foolhardy, given the potential negative implications for, as one example, the region's multibillion-dollar tourism sector which relies on marine resources to thrive.

Adrianus Vlugman, senior adviser for sustainable development and environmental health with the Pan American Health Organisation/World Health Organisation, made the case Tuesday.

"We actually don't know what is the impact of the basic water quality and the marine pollution and the fecal pollution and wastewater pollution on public health because we don't do the research," the Guyana-based adviser told The Gleaner, following his participation in a media training workshop being hosted here by the Caribbean Regional Fund for Wastewater Management (CReW).

"We have anecdotal stories about how the yachts and the septic tank discharge from hotels on the coast are affecting the water quality on the coast and that people get ear, nose and throat infections - but it is anecdotal. You have to prove the link between water quality and the incidents compared to other beaches and then you can make a scientific case," he added.

"But the Caribbean lacks this with few exceptions. Trinidad is doing some studies, but it is based on water quality. You have to make the link between water quality and certain incidents of diseases. And it might be, I would think, if you are a public-health student in the Caribbean, that you should do these studies according to proper protocol so you have good data to show," he said further.

At the same time, Vlugman noted that the lack of research in the area exists, perhaps because some politicians do not want to face the prospect of what it would mean to have a clear picture of what is happening.

"It is my impression that not all politicians want to know because once you know, then you have to do something. And you don't want to read in the newspaper that this beach is too polluted to swim in or that it is not according to any guidelines," he noted.

While not unsympathetic to that, Vlugman said the research was, nonetheless, vital.

Project Coordinator for CReW Denise Forrest shared her view on the importance of research and not only concerning wastewater and health.

"Data on wastewater is difficult to come by. It is not an issue we take seriously … so we are [currently] dealing with averages. But I think we need to know because if we don't know, we can't act [though] there is also a mindset that even if we know, it gives the wrong impression of the region," she said.

Still, Forrest said, "We need to make the science, policy link". As such, the US$20-million CReW project is to help address the dearth of research. To that end, a database is to be one of the outputs from the project which aims to:

Provide sustainable financing for the wastewater sector;

Support policy and legislative reform; and

Foster regional dialogue and knowledge exchange on wastewater.

"The data [for the database] will come from the countries and we have some baseline data. We will also use it [the database] to share our learning on the revolving fund," Forrest explained.

CReW is, too, facilitating networking and collaboration among universities.

"There is a need to develop our professionals as well as to do research. We are linking a number of universities in the region with a view to have them do an exchange of students and professional exchange of faculty to develop know-how in the region," Forrest said.

Already, she added, Jamaica's University of Technology and the University of the West Indies are in touch with the University of Monterrey in Mexico "with the view to developing a research programme".